From The Archive
Thomas Frank
No. 13  December 1999

Legionnaire’s Disease

  

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It’s not difficult to understand the sense of historical frustration that informs so much of the bitter populism of recent decades. We, too, regret many of the ways the world has changed over the last thirty years; we, too, believe that the vast majority of Americans have good reason to be angry over the way they have been done over; and we, too, have little patience for ten-minute drum solos.

But what makes us stand back and gape in awe at the thirty-year ascendancy of backlash politics—stretching as they have from the day Chicago nightstick struck hippie skull to the recent impeachment fiasco—is the cultural accomplishment of the thing. How did the bunch of privileged former frat boys, lawyers, and corporate officers who staffed the Nixon, Reagan, and Gingrich revolutions ever come to convince themselves, let alone an entire nation, that they spoke on behalf of the People and that they were the victims of some kind of elitist conspiracy? How did they continue to impress voters with the threat posed by the liberal state long after liberals had disappeared from the national stage? And how were they able to persuade Americans that those few summers of boomer joy back in the Sixties required thirty years of payback?

These are the questions that this issue of The Baffler proposes to investigate, largely by turning to the prehistory of the backlash ascendancy, by examining the personalities and movements and ideas that made right-wing populism possible.

For the kind of “middle American” figures who populated the Midwestern suburbia of my youth, the answers were self-evident. Something had gone so wildly wrong for them in the Sixties—and had stayed so steadfastly wrong ever since—that nothing could ever make them whole again. Their favorite magazines, radio hosts, and politicians would never let them forget it, either, dangling before them an ever-growing list of impossible grievances against the world: tales of welfare degeneracy, crime in the streets, crazy civil rights leaders, obscene art, foolish professors, or sitcom provocations, each one, without fail, producing the desired result. Which is not to say that the professors resigned, or that the sitcoms failed, but that the “middle Americans” grew ever more bitter, ever more certain that the entire world of expertise—the media, the judges, the psychologists, the academies, the politicians—had entered into a conspiracy against their way of life.

Conservatives solved the problems of the Sixties by “rediscovering” the working class.

On the other hand, many of these backlash subjects were successful people, self-made men who had done well in their fields of banking and clerking and sales—the sort of folks who are supposed to regard American life with optimism and satisfaction, not infinite bitterness. What’s more, the politicians that so wound them up won virtually every election, fashioning the never-ebbing mad-as-hellness of millions of bitter self-made men into an unstoppable electoral coalition. And yet nothing could assuage their fury. However righteously Reagan might drone, however boldly Bush might pose with the flag or Gingrich snarl at those elitist “McGoverniks,” the culture wars they declared were always lost, and the age of polite consensus and public decency grew ever further out of reach. “America is Back!” they crowed proudly after electing some reactionary or another, only to sink back into bitterness the next day: America is never back, it is always betrayed, every time those Sixties people sneak in the back door and ruin everything.

But the strangest fantasy of all behind the thirty-year backlash had to do with social class. As Barbara Ehrenreich demonstrated in Fear of Falling, still the definitive treatment of the subject, conservatives solved the problems of the Sixties by “rediscovering” the working class and attributing to it all manner of “family values” sentiments. Between the 1969 flurry over reactionary “hardhats,” Nixon’s salutes to the hardworking Silent Majority, and the liberals’ shameful acceptance of the new stereotype (cf., Archie Bunker), they were able to balance out the authenticity of the civil rights and antiwar movements with the authenticity of the working class. While those crazy kids ran wild in the streets, real Americans went to church and defended their flag.

Never mind for now that the story wasn’t true (as Ehrenreich points out, working Americans actually remained consistently liberal throughout the period in question): For the bitter self-made men of my acquaintance it fit the picture perfectly. They themselves were members of the universal and hard-bitten proletariat of taxpayers, they imagined, and they understood their fight with the world as an oddly jiggered sort of class war, a battle in which class was a cultural issue rather than a material one, a question of right thinking rather than of ownership, a confrontation with pretentiousness and permissiveness rather than poverty. What’s more, there were always enough hardhat types around to make the fantasy plausible, enough unions that valued culture war sufficiently to endorse Ronald Reagan for president.

In the end the series of culture warriors they helped elect turned out to care far more about freeing the corporations than bringing back the Fifties or abolishing art. As it turned out, culture war was always more about managing the beloved blue-collar class than appealing to it. The further back one looks in the history of right-wing populism, the more layers of varnish that are stripped away, the clearer this becomes.

Came for the Americanism, Stayed for the Strikebreaking

Some who lived through it understood the First World War as a colossal exercise in futility, the dead end where the Western world’s hollow verities seemed to collapse once and for all. The former soldiers who formed the American Legion in 1919, however, sincerely believed that the Great War was all it had been advertised to be. For them a few years of trench warfare affirmed the truth of the old slogans and patriotic phrases so persuasively and so conclusively that within months after coming back from France they met in convention and declared a culture war for the very soul of their nation. It was a Pentecost of ordinariness: The boys were back to purify their own land, to elevate the flag to a higher plane of symbolism, to speak every one of them in the highfalutin tongues of red-hot patriotism. Led by the sons of prominent politicians both Republican and Democratic, backed enthusiastically by captains of industry and the governors of many states, and marching under the banner of “100 percent Americanism,” a phrase conjured up for them by Hamilton Fish (soon to begin his career as America’s most prominent red-hunter), the Legionnaires fought for a world that worked the way normal people wanted it to. They warred on immigrants, on insufficiently American schoolteachers, on “alien slackers,” on the ACLU, on “cosmopolitans,” on the red universities, on public speakers with whom they disagreed, on virtually every aspect of the cultural and political ferment of the preceding thirty years. Whether running radicals out of town or urging the establishment of red-hunting committees in Congress, the Legion claimed to speak for an average America beyond both the “classes and the masses,” daring to pronounce the truths that legal procedure and democratic niceties ordinarily forbade.

A better term than “populism” would be “whip hand of capital.”

Intellectuals of the era laughed the Legion off. In the novels of the Jazz Age they were depicted as comic reactionaries, bellowing boobs in Sam Browne belts whose disapproval was a coveted prize—much in the way contemporary artists vie to win the antagonism of Jesse Helms or contemporary advertising establishes a product’s quality by showing how it pisses off the suits. In the industrial wars of that period, though, the Legion’s contributions were less comical. They contributed mightily to the great red roundup of 1919 and even shot it out in places with their arch-enemy, the IWW. They furnished strike-breakers at many of the confrontations of the Twenties and Thirties and developed an obsessive anticommunism that would, some thirty years later, metastasize into a full-blown society-wide paranoia.

In its early days the Legion embodied many of the characteristics that historian Michael Kazin associates with American populism: the concern with “Americanism” and, more crucially, with identifying and fighting “un-American” ideas and organizations; a notion of “the people” in all their glorious averageness; and above all a sense of crisis, of the Republic imperiled by some implacable elitist foe, in this case the partisans of the treasonous “isms” that the Legion seemed to find lurking everywhere.

By today’s standards, though, a better term than “populism” would be “whip hand of capital.” While Legion doctrine depicted the organization as a bridge between the classes, it was also the brainchild of a handful of high-ranking officers and businessmen (including “Wild Bill” Donovan, future head of the OSS) who spoke of their creation as a weapon in the class war they believed was impending. Some Legion leaders openly equated their group with the Italian Fascists; anticommunist historian Richard Gid Powers goes as far as to assert that the Legion was modeled on the proto-Nazi Freikorps, then running rampant throughout Germany.

Either way, the owner community liked what it saw. The young organization was bankrolled by prominent corporations just as interested in combating rampant radicalism as were the millionaire colonels who established the group in the first place. Legion leaders returned the favor in the Thirties, stoutly backing the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) as it cranked up its own culture war on the New Deal and sought to tag economic regulation as the first step down the road to tyranny.

That particular offensive never got very far, of course. Despite the NAM’s and the Legion’s fantasies of a common people outraged at a grasping octopus state, few in the Thirties were actually persuaded to view the corporations as trustees of the general will. That delusion would have to wait many years before it found a receptive audience, years after the Legion had made its peace with the welfare state (it lobbied heavily for the GI Bill of Rights), dropped the paramilitary act, and become centrist and inoffensive. For the last thirty years, though, we have all of us been living in the Legion’s world, a place where epidemic violations of the principles of “Americanism” bring on wave after wave of popular indignation—and in which the nation’s owners are showered by grateful legislators with gift after gift.

Taps

But that, thankfully, is beginning to change at last. A recent replaying of TV news coverage from 1980 reminds us how far we have come: To cover the interminable hostage crisis of that year the reporters went through all of the standard populist motions of the day, including conducting interviews with angry blue-collar men in a barber shop somewhere in deepest America. (Naturally, the men whose testimony was aired were inconsolably bitter about national decline, believing the absolute worst about everyone concerned.) In 1980 such footage was a standard element of any national TV news program. It’s inconceivable today. Not only have blue-collar organizations dropped off the face of the media earth, but the salty affirmations of their members are no longer required. They count for nothing either as an economic force or as a repository of authenticity.

Ironically, such figures essentially negated themselves. The backlash they symbolized made the Reagan revolution possible; as it in turn gave rise to the New Economy, it has brought with it a new species of self-justification, one with little need for the sanction of “middle Americans” or anybody else. The great thinkers of the right have looked around them and decided that the way of the free market is not just profitable, it’s the very crown of creation, the inevitable result of centuries of global progress. The corporations aren’t ruling on behalf of some “silent majority” or even Newt Gingrich’s “normal Americans”; these days it’s the future, it’s the entire planet that is said to have endorsed the Wall Street way.

Not only is global inevitability a more flattering idea for columnists and think-tankers than reaction ever was, but it also promises to tame the hardhatted beast far more effectively than thirty years of AM radio and wedge-issue divisiveness. Last Labor Day, just about the only time when union spokesmen are permitted to violate the free-market consensus that reigns across the channels of responsible commentary, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka appeared on Crossfire to take on a Republican congressional firebrand. The program’s rightwing host, Mary Matalin, guided the conversation unfailingly down the familiar pathways of backlash sentiment, announcing first that she was one with the “working stiff”—a member, in fact, of no fewer than three unions!—and then joining forces with the congressman to berate Trumka for the usual bill of grievances. How could the AFL-CIO support so many Democrats and such a liberal agenda, they demanded, when polls revealed that many union members were in fact family-values mini-Reagans? Trumka, though, refused to budge, pointing out simply that some legislation was better for the rich than for workers, that Republican leaders had repeatedly called for a national right-to-work law and had even spoken enthusiastically of union-busting. When taunted with the routine charge that union wages are disproportionately high, this back-talking ingrate even dared to point out the vast differential between CEO salaries and those of their workers. As soon as he had left the set, though, Matalin had her revenge. If workers were no longer going to play their appointed part in the backlash, then who needed them? The New Economy had no place for such as Trumka: “You can’t stop globalization any more than you can stop computers,” she smugged.

Nor does the New Economy have much use for that other backlash subject, the bitter self-made men. Once they were the toast of Limbaugh and Reader’s Digest, the sort of realistic, down-to-earth guys who knew that you had to fight for every dollar and who took no nonsense, either from employees or government. But who gives a damn about them now? While they were getting worked up at the do-goodery of the milquetoast liberals, their pals in the Fortune 500 were deciding that they, too, had had enough of the “angry white male.” Today the corporate imagination is fired by crazy makers of wow and zany change agents. The fantasy subject of the New Economy is not some hardened doubter; it’s a kid with a goatee who’s just IPO’d and who’s now being celebrated in Dodge commercials, Arthur Andersen ads, and Fortune magazine cover stories. As the secretary of the treasury dotingly describes him, he’s “made his first hundred million before he’s bought his first suit;” he’s a “visionary entrepreneur” just out of college, he plays hackysack in the aisle of his Lear jet. If “100 percent Americanism” means anything to him, it’s the new corporate fantasy of “Free Agent Nation,” a place where bosses have finally been freed from the bonds of loyalty to anyone and the funky tastes of the counterculture are recognized as markers of entrepreneurial prowess.

So hail and farewell, Legionnaires and bitter self-made men. You have done your historical duty ably, rescued your employers from the dark decades of regulation and taxation, and delivered your nation into the hands of a higher order of men, a race of seers mystically attuned to the divine rhythms of the market. They owe you a debt of thanks, all you hardhats, you believers, you Reagan Democrats, you Middle Americans. For the rich you have truly made it “Morning in America.” It was your rage against authority that gave us the Cato Institute, your refusal to be ruled that built us a Bill Gates, your fury against those smelly hippies that has sent all those IPO kids on their snowboarding vacations to Gstaad. But as your beloved hometowns sink silently into the special oblivion the global marketplace has reserved for them, as you flip the pages of Modern Maturity and wonder why your health care sucks so, as your way of life comes to an unsung end and your kids get turned down by the private schools you no longer have any hope of affording, somehow we doubt that there will be too many monuments to honor your achievement. Let this Baffler be your marker, your cenotaph.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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